Parent Allyson Juneau-Butler says it is difficult during a normal school year to get her son the services and support he needs from the Clark County School District’s special education program, described in a new report as understaffed and underfunded even before the novel coronavirus hit.
But the school closures ordered by Gov. Steve Sisolak in mid-March have raised concerns that what was hard before will be a much bigger challenge in the fall for parents and teachers forced to deal with learning loss and a backlog of assessments that they say could leave students without the tools necessary to their education.
Juneau-Butler and other parents say they have been unable during the closures to arrange updates for their kids’ individualized education plans, or IEPs, legal documents that define a student’s needs and outline the services the district will provide.
After being told that revision meetings weren’t being held now, she said she fears that delaying the update until fall will put her son weeks behind in receiving the support he needs, as new evaluations will require the gathering of new information on his academic and socio-emotional skills.
She believes many families will be in the same boat, creating a backlog for teachers, school psychologists and other team members who help create or update the plans for special education students.
“It’s frustrating to see that your child struggles and then see a delay in getting those services,” Juneau-Butler said.
Juneau-Butler said she and her wife worked full time during school closures, making it hard to sit with their son during virtual instruction to keep him focused. She said that she’s aware of the services CCSD will offer virtually for special education students over the summer but that distance learning has not been a good fit for her two children.
“Typically developing children can work pretty independently in many cases,” she said. “That’s not the case with us.”
Assessments, meetings on hold
Clark County School District representatives say the district has been holding IEP meetings since March 31 via telephone or videoconference except in cases in which a parent requested an in-person meeting or a student required an in-person assessment.
Students with existing IEPs have had access to distance learning resources along with their general education peers and have been in contact with their teachers, they said.
“Most assessments for special education services require in-person meetings that are not currently supported during school closure,” a statement said. “In such cases, the assessments will resume when school reopens.”
Special education students were required to be included in districts’ distance learning plans, according to a March 12 directive from the U.S. Department of Education and a follow-up stating that federal disability laws should not prevent districts from offering remote learning during school closures. The follow-up was issued after some districts indicated they were “reluctant to provide any distance instruction because they believed that federal disability law presents insurmountable barriers to remote education.”
The directives acknowledge that schools might not be able to provide all services in the same manner as before, but encouraged alternatives like time extensions, closed captioning or speech or language services through video conferencing.
Distance learning has been a mixed bag for special education students, according to advocates like Wendy Broder-Stock of the tutoring and advocacy group NEAT Services. Some students meet with their teachers daily, and others struggle to learn from home.
Assessments for new or updated services have largely been on hold since schools were closed, she said, as they often require considerable time spent with a student.
“It’s really hard to do an assessment over Zoom or over Hangout,” Broder-Stock said.
Trevor Hayes, a Nevada System of Higher Education regent, said he’s been in the process of having his daughter evaluated for dyslexia through CCSD for over a year. A final meeting was delayed when schools closed, he said, adding that he doesn’t know why it was put off.
“If I were to venture a guess, it probably seems too hard to do, so they’ve put us on the back burner,” he said.
A CCSD school psychologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns over retaliation, said the district initially asked staffers to hold off on evaluation meetings after schools closed and await further guidance. The meetings resumed about two weeks later, she said, but some staffers found that the notes and files necessary to conduct evaluations were locked away in school buildings.
She completed much of her caseload this quarter but said there will be a few cases that carry over to fall because they require comprehensive assessments that can’t be done remotely.
To parents’ fears about a potential backlog of assessments in the fall, she acknowledged that’s possible, particularly for cases in which contracted translation services must be scheduled.
When meetings are held virtually, attendance is typically excellent, she said, an experience also echoed by teachers who say they believe meetings by video chat could be a viable option going forward to provide flexibility to working parents.
Great City School report
The Council of Great City Schools, an organization made up of the 74 largest school districts in the country, recently evaluated CCSD’s special education programs, citing the need for improvement in the large number of vacancies, low state funding and lack of uniform practices districtwide.
The report was written prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. But focus group feedback included in the report says special education assessments were sometimes delayed even then because of school psychologist shortages, among other things.
The report did recognize the district’s assistive technology service, which provides equipment like speech-generating devices, characterizing it as one of the best in the nation.
Superintendent Jesus Jara said at a news briefing Tuesday that the district is working to make such technology available to students while schools are closed.
He added that the district will address possible learning losses among special education students by assessing knowledge levels at the beginning of the year and then wrapping any missed standards into the first quarter.
“How do we provide the one-on-one support at this time? It’s something that we are struggling with, to be candid,” Jara said. “As far as the learning loss that we’re expecting … it’s going to be something that we’ll have to assess” when students return in late August.
The report also found that CCSD students have far lower rates of exiting special education into general education, as well as lower rates of inclusion in general education classrooms — a practice known as learning in the least restrictive environment possible.
Jara said he believes large class sizes and a lack of professional development opportunities for teachers have stymied inclusion practices.
“To be very clear, this is not about educators not being willing,” Jara said. “We have not provided professional development systemically.”
A school funding formula with weighted funding for special education students would help the district provide those resources, he said.
A resource teacher who asked to remain anonymous said a blended learning model in which his students participate in their general education classes but also take extra video meetings with him could be a possibility. However, he said he worries that asking students to do these extra class hours would not meet inclusion standards.
During this quarter’s distance learning, he says he’s used video calls, offering extra help in the chat box. Of the 19 students he taught, five were active participants, half did some work and the others did none, he said.
Sarah Comroe, a teacher and parent to three CCSD students with IEPs, said there will likely be no one solution that fits everyone. She said her daughter’s IEP meeting was also delayed until fall after being set for March, as it required meeting with a speech language pathologist despite the fact that the student is not receiving speech services.
“Kids with IEPs will be heavily impacted no matter what we do, because it’s already so complicated,” Comroe said.
She said it’s critical for the district to plan for the fall, particularly with students who are from low-income backgrounds, experience homelessness or fall into other categories that affect their ability to engage in education.
“If we don’t figure out fall now, we’re going to be in much worse shape,” she said.